A collective dispatch from the LEO MUSIC DESK
It’s hard, in a year marred by bookend natural disasters of an unholy scale (remember the tsunami?), the same dumb brute president with his wars and doublespeak, a new Ashlee Simpson record and the impending divorce of her brainless sis, to relax and focus on what’s in front of you. When asked to recall the best albums of 2005, for instance, my mind recoiled like a snake that bit the wrong bear, fell limp and blanked. It’s the Record Store Syndrome in grander fashion: I enter with a clear idea of what I want, and am instantly swept into the swirl of 20,000 things I don’t need.
Such is the double-edged sword of maintaining the LEO Music Desk. Albums come in like winter mice to a warm house, every day and week and month, and it’s a little hard to keep it straight while simultaneously pushing an ear to the Louisville ground (most of our output, frankly, is worth more ink than anything with a national return address). But I’m not complaining, not at all, and should be mauled on general principle if I ever do.
So, in the spirit of giving you last-minute ideas on albums to buy for someone who needs a turn-on this holiday, I’ll do as my esteemed colleagues have below and run off a few bands that still turn my mood whichever way they want.
These Louisville folks put out records you need this year: Verktum, Follow the Train, Scott Carney & Heavy Friends, Furlong, The Merediths, Chase Dabney, ARCH, Shipping News, Crain, Coliseum, d.biddle (Duncan Barlow, an expatriate), a.m. Sunday, Sarah Elizabeth Whitehead, Joe Manning, Your Black Star, IamIs, Ronnie Mack and Rachel’s, among many others.
These aren’t Louisville folks, but are nonetheless worthy of your time and money: Black Mountain, Run-DMC (yes, the whole catalogue was reissued!), Diana Darby, Unwed Sailor, The Duhks, Bellini, Dead Meadow and Wingdale Community Singers. Word.
Metaphorical Xanax: As much as I like hat-and-sweater weather, it doesn’t take more than a couple of below-20 days to remind me that I have bad knees. The cold gets under my skin and in my joints and I wind up cursing the elements, wishing I lived somewhere tropical. Generally, the effects of seasonal lassitude are significantly diminished by liberal doses of music that make me think of sun-kissed girls in sundresses and open-toed shoes. This year, these five selections successfully quelled any December malaise:
Joe Bataan, Call My Name (Vampisoul): The Godfather of Latin Soul is still the baddest motherfucker en el barrio. These tunes could have graced AM waves in 1973.
a.m. Sunday, Ladies & Gentlemen (independent): In the same neighborhood as the aforementioned emperador. Funky, sexy and smooth with many “Os”.
Espers, The Weed Tree (Locust Music): Like standing on the Black Cliffs of Inishmór without that creepy feeling that you’re being watched.
OOIIOO, Gold & Green (Thrill Jockey): It made me think of women kickboxers. I don’t know why, nor do I care.
Janis Joplin, Pearl: The Legacy Edition (Columbia/Legacy): I have a soft spot for hippies, although I was always more Newport than Woodstock. Folkies just seem less likely to burst into spontaneous nudity. This’un is worth the upgrade.
Good luck for the rest of the season, fellow babies.
Reflecting on the year’s better recordings has become an often-painstaking activity. The following list brings forth what I consider the most ambitious of the year’s musical offerings. Whether they are world-renowned talent or relative unknowns, all of the music has two things in common: ingenuity and mettle.
Two offerings from the Eccentric Soul collection round out the top three; both are an amazing tip of the hat to the lost and forgotten soul gems that dot so many of our Midwest cities. One features soul and funk from Dayton, Ohio’s Capsoul Records label and the other pays homage to Chicago’s Bandit Records label.
Whether it’s an album of homespun African thumb pianos, stellar soul senders, ditties of paranoia over a once burgeoning technology or a soundtrack of Kentucky in the summertime, this year’s trove of recordings shows true ingenuity in music making that is always welcome for this indelible record geek.
The Year’s Most Ingenious Recordings: Various Artists, Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label (Numero Group); Konono No. 1, Congotronics (Crammed Discs); Various Artists, Eccentric Soul: The Bandit Label (Numero Group); Antony & the Johnsons, I am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian); Various Artists, Atomic Platters Boxed Set (Bear Family); Arthur Russell, World of Echo (Audika Records); Animal Collective, Feels (Fat Cat); Various Artists, World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love’s a Real Thing: The Fuzzy & Funky Sounds of West Africa (Luaka Bop); Joe Manning, Chapel of the Bear (Roller Rink Rampage Records); Six Organs of Admittance, School of the Flower (Drag City).
The sons (and a daughter) of Kentucky made a top-notch showing among 2005 recordings. The year’s best included sensual dream-logic on My Morning Jacket’s Z (ATO Records), the first full step beyond mainstream country by Dwight Yoakam (Blame the Vain, New West), and a bravely constructed set where Patty Loveless achieved a great new-traditionalist balance (Dreamin’ My Dreams, Epic).
Loveless wasn’t the only female solo artist who stepped forward this past year. There was confoundingly intimate progressive cabaret from Fiona Apple (Extraordinary Machine, Epic); new Bonnie Raitt that was thoroughly New Orleans-influenced but without some trimmings that had gotten old (Souls Alike, Capitol); transcendent modern covers by R&B legend Bettye LaVette (I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, Anti); and a one-of-a-kind alt-country affair with which Shelby Lynne drew out deep feeling through the frisson between home recordings and thoughtful studio follow-up (Suit Yourself, Capitol).
Indie rock has few champions to equal Mac McCaughan, and his band Portastatic finally delivered a disk that shows off their noisy and inventive heart (Bright Ideas, Merge). On The Mighty Rearranger (Sanctuary), Robert Plant reinvented his favorite themes — from a cagey veteran’s perspective that’s both irascible and irresistible. And everyone should join in celebrating the tape-vault archeological dig that led to The Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, from Carnegie Hall (on Blue Note).
Let me just get this off my B-cup chest, then we can move on and talk about the “good” offerings of 2005: If aging means getting soft around the edges and losing all ability to make interesting, gritty, appealing music like you did in the past, then Sheryl Crow and Liz Phair are pre-menopausal grandmas. Their so-called “efforts” this year (Crow’s Good is Good on A&M and Phair’s Somebody’s Miracle on Capitol/EMI) are so boring and worthless, I actually lost my copy of Good and don’t even care. They used to be mad, pissed off at the world and ex-boyfriends — now not so much. Their panties have been unwadded by a man on a bike and a kid. That sucks.
So now that I only have 150 words to talk about what rocked last year, let me explain that my tastes lean toward pop. It’s lonely at the top.
1. Shelby Lynne, Suit Yourself (Capitol): Although Shelby isn’t pissed off at the world, this offering is so raw you get ear chafing after each listen.
2. Kelly Clarkson, Breakaway (RCA): This album proves she has the chops. Guys want her, girls dig her, Lindsay Lohan wants to be her.
3. The Muckrakers, Front of the Parade (Label X): Local band worthy of taking over commercial radio — for better or worse.
4. My Morning Jacket, Z (ATO/RCA): Louisville band coveted by music critics and hipsters everywhere. We already knew they were cool.
5. Various Artists, Elizabethtown (RCA): Film sucked, soundtrack doesn’t. Ryan Adams, MMJ, I Nine — Nancy Wilson knows how to pick ’em.
1. Spoon, Gimme Fiction (Merge): Frontman Britt Daniel is gradually shedding his American Elvis Costello-isms without sacrificing any wit or pop smarts. A perfect album.
2. The Giraffes, The Giraffes (Razor & Tie): Fleet-fingered punk-metal with just enough smarty-pants underpinnings to keep things really interesting. You’re going home in a fucking ambulance.
3. White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan (V2): Jack White is a weirdo, but he and Meg have pulled off yet another fantastic album. Fewer Zep cops than Elephant, but I still like it.
4. My Morning Jacket, Z (ATO/BMG): Jim James and company continue on their Flaming Lips meet Neil Young underwater path. Less space rock (boo) with better songs (yay).
5. Antony & the Johnsons, I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian): Quivery-voiced baroque-pop torch singer with major gender displacement issues gets Lou Reed and Boy George to guest on his (Mercury Prize-winning) record. Scary, alien and lovely.
6. Franz Ferdinand, You Could Have It So Much Better (Sony): Sure, this disc is basically Part 2 of their debut, but who says sloppy seconds aren’t enjoyable as well? Not Franz Ferdinand. You’re so lucky.
7. Coliseum, Goddamage (Manic Ride): Fast and furious, this EP is a glorious kick in the teeth.
8. Bloc Party, Silent Alarm (Vice): It’s 1981 all over again (see also: Franz Ferdinand), but damned if the songs aren’t terrific and the band doesn’t rock.
9. Doves, Some Cities (Capitol): Nobody does downcast mope-rock better than Doves. Even when they’re happy, they sound sad.
Asked to recap my view on the year in music, I wanted to pick my own year. No such luck. So I’ve been thinking, and I keep going back to this one thing: Survival of the fittest. The old dudes of rock proving that age is irrelevant and achieving mastery of your craft can be yours for the duration. For one, the Rolling Stones’ A Bigger Bang. It’s simple and it works.
For another, an expression of purest joy over Alex Chilton hanging onto his game and allowing us one more. If the Box Tops comprise memories of being a young girl, Big Star rolled me through my teens and straight on into whatever stage this current one is. In Space. Yet again, simple and works.
However, words for the deserved are due. Madonna? Are you really doing dance music? So creative. Barbra Streisand — did you or did you not make a duet album with Barry Gibb? And, Michael Bublé … well, you know it might have been sort of OK that you were an Italian man wanting to be a modern-day Frank Sinatra, but you had to go and make that “Totally Blonde” movie and show anyone absurdly bored and uninformed enough to watch that you absolutely didn’t need us to discredit you. You were entirely capable of doing that yourself.
Listed in no particular order, these albums refused to leave my CD changer in 2005 (or at least put up one hell of a fight in doing so):
Paul McCartney, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (Capitol): His best in more than 30 years; some of it, like “Jenny Wren,” is Beatles-worthy. No, really.
Parry Gripp, For Those About to Shop, We Salute You (Oglio): Consisting of 51 jingles, this oddball solo project by Nerf Herder frontman is possibly 2005’s best-conceived album (depending on your sense of humor).
The Muckrakers, Front of the Parade (Toucan Cov
e): I listened to this pop masterpiece four times on a June road trip; I only wish the trip had been longer.
The Merediths, A Closed Universe (Debauchery): Highlighted by 1960s pop throwbacks like “Let’s All Live Underground,” it stuck to my ears like taffy.
Charlie Chesterman and the Legendary Motorbikes, Skunk on the Loose (Tin Whistle): Accessible and fun; rockabilly meets pop with former Scruffy the Cat frontman.
Eddie and the Fuck Munkys, The World’s Greatest American Barroom Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, Vol. 1 (FM Records): Disturbingly funny and unfathomably likeable.
Peter Searcy, Trust Falls (Independent): His songwriting just keeps getting better.
Yardsale, Yardsale (Harlan Honeywell): Alt-country and pop-punk get into a bar brawl. Wicked.
Super Deluxe, Surrender! (The Control Group): Solid return from underrated late-1990s power-pop outfit. It’s Jet meets the Posies.
And there you have it. Here’s hoping you got at least one of these for Christmas, because you can’t borrow mine.
When people ask why I’ve moved to Louisville — twice — from bigger cities, I explain that, partly, it’s because of the local music universe. I say “universe” because “scene” is such a small, juvenile word for something so beautiful and weird.
Slint and My Morning Jacket were the highlights for me this year. Even in a town that loves to shout jokes and insults at anyone whose head might get too big, the skill and passion in each — especially Slint drummer Britt Walford and Jacket singer Jim James — was undeniable and thrilling.
In the clubs, Lucky Pineapple delighted with their inventive, exciting blend of styles and rhythms. Joe Manning stunned with his amazing voice and lyrics that are already being taught in universities and bars.
Others that always delivered include a.m. Sunday, Ayin, The Commonwealth, Elephant Micah, IamIs, Jamie Barnes, The Photographic, Rachel’s, Ronnie Mack, Sean Garrison & the Five Finger Discount, Shipping News, Verktum and Your Black Star. Freakwater finally returned. The Children are missed. Dick Sisto, Harry Pickens and Todd Hildreth fed my love of jazz piano. Tanita Gaines gave me the blues, and I thank her.
2006 promises new records by Follow the Train, Johnny Berry and the Outliers, Liberation Prophecy, The Merediths, Sapat and Second Story Man, plus the lost Pennies album!
There’s not enough space to write about each, or about two dozen other excellent groups. Go see and hear them all, as often as possible. There’s a universe happening here.